On the Road: When the Nestling Heads to College


“How are you holding up?”

It’s a common refrain these days and  generally … no, always  … it’s a phrase directed at me by a woman. Someone who is often slightly older and, without fail, a mother. Usually, the deliverer of the sentence also has slightly moist eyes, a subtle head tilt and a sad, sympathetic  smile.

Though I say I am fine, I know what these women are alluding to. It’s not illness or a death in the family that is triggering these expressions of compassion. No, it is the countdown to college and the prelude to the nest being empty as your offspring take wing (or rather, jet) and fly off on their own.

My one and only baby bird, Sophie, is set to fly south for the winter (and fall, and spring) in less than two weeks. By mid-August, she will have already moved into her triple dorm room at a fine liberal arts institution far below the Mason Dixon line, taken part in orientation and be working her way through a full load of freshman level classes before Labor Day has even thought to make an appearance here.

Things start way earlier in the south, I’ve come to understand. I guess that means the tears, too?

“I cried through four states,” admitted one mom in recounting what happened after dropping her son off at a midwestern university a few years back.

“I cried for weeks,” another friend said just this week. “It didn’t help that when we left her, she was sobbing. I had to promise I would come visit in two weeks, which is what I did.

“It is a real adjustment for everyone,” she added. “But you find a new normal. When you only have one, it is hard.”

But honestly, for much of the summer, my only one and I have been having fun with it. Shopping online for bedding, a.k.a. “dorm bundles,” which are pre-packaged kits that include a comforter, two sheet sets, and a foam mattress topper all in the odd single XL size that dorm beds seem to universally come in these days. Also in the bundle (which arrives in a cardboard box ready for the car) are amenities like a desk lamp, clip-on fan, shower caddy, towels, power strip, laundry hamper, hangers and even a microwavable bowl, cup and plate set for meals our child will inevitably try to create in her dorm room despite the thousands of dollars we are dropping on a fully functional meal plan.

It’s all a far cry from my own college experience in the ’80s when I packed whatever pillows and bedding I could drum up from the depths of my mother’s linen closet to outfit my dorm. Also new in the 21stcentury is the roommate selection process, which was as dicey as the cafeteria food in my day.

Gone, also, are the days of the roulette wheel of random roommate assignments. Now, it’s all done on Instagram, and in early May, once the college had been selected, Sophie joined the class of ’23 Instagram group to find a roomie to put in the online cart.

I must admit, at first glance it didn’t look promising.

In post after post, young women had uploaded photos of themselves in poses and outfits that would make avowed aficionados of “Girls Gone Wild” blush. We’re talking sun-seeking will-be sorority girls in cut offs or teeny bikinis making devil horns with their hand while sticking out their pierced tongues a la Gene Simmons for the camera.

Really? What is that all about? Tindergarten?

Feeling a bit queasy, I left Sophie to sort it out on her own and was starting to get truly concerned when she came downstairs to show me a picture on her phone. It was of a smiling young girl with big glasses and curly short hair who professed love of all things environmental science. After a brief bit of messaging, they had agreed to be roommates and that was that. I hope they are as compatible in person as they are on Instagram, but even if they’re not, that’s part of the college lesson too.

Though I should be spending every waking hour with my daughter as the shortest summer of our lives quickly dwindles down to our final days together, it’s been difficult, as both of us are putting in quite a few hours at work to pay for the next four years. But in the past week or so, Sophie has been coming into my room late in the evening to sit on the bed and talk. We’ve entered a new phase, one in which her fears about the next step are coming to the surface, as exciting as it all is.

Part of it is centered around the adulting issues — dealing with banking, staying on top of laundry and homework, or advocating for oneself when things go awry and get lost  in the administrative channels, which is inevitable.

But ironically, her biggest fear is not the calculus and astrophysics courses coming her way (which personally, would terrify me), but the social aspects of making friends and finding connections in a university filled with what she imagines to be people who already know each other.

I try to tell her that college is different than high school because it’s the first time in your life you really get to curate your friends group. Think about it, the only two things that high school students have in common is their age and the fact they all live in the same town. But the university universe is different. Full of people curious about life, it’s large enough and diverse enough that you can always find your people, whether it’s in class, clubs, the cafeteria, or in your own dorm.

As if on cue, a booklet from the college arrived in the mail the day after our talk and it addressed exactly these same fears. Not only did it give practical advice on banking and transportation on campus, but also a reminder that 2,000 other new students will be going through the same thing as Sophie later this month.

Last summer, one of my best friends from college drove that point home when we met up with he and his family during a trip to Europe. An Arab student from the Middle East, he told my daughter that I was the first American girl who talked to him on the campus of our university in rural Ohio. Talk about being a fish out of water. Yet today, as an alum, he is a one-man cheering squad  for the school and his own son and daughter both recently graduated from there as well.

And that’s the point. Put yourself out there because you never know who’s going to talk to you on day one and end up as a friend for life.

As for the tears? Well, check this space next month and I’ll tell you where we are on that score.